'The best night of all our careers' - a momentous night for Irish football

Thu, Aug 04 2016

Stephen Kenny embraces captain Stephen O'Donnell after full time. Credit: Tom Beary

There have been many famous nights for League of Ireland clubs in Europe but Tuesday night in Tallaght was something special.


It wasn’t about a glorious failure, or the public coming along to see some famous players off the TV lining out in an Irish stadium. It was about a superb on-field success, a team backed to the hilt by their supporters and a club from our much maligned league showing what is achievable.


Dare we say, it was the best night on the European stage in the league’s history.


Dundalk, the champions of the League of Ireland beat a seasoned Champions League side BATE Borisov to put the Lilywhites into the Champions League play-of, just a tie away from the group stages of Europe’s premier club competition. They even have the security of the Europa League group stages in their back pocket to give them freedom in their upcoming play-off.


Five years ago this month Stephen O’Donnell bravely slotted away a penalty for Shamrock Rovers deep in extra time in Belgrade against Partizan to qualify his then team for the group stages of the Europa League – the only time until this week that an Irish side had qualified for that phase of a European competition.


Speaking after the BATE win the Dundalk captain Stephen O’Donnell made it clear just how momentous their victory was in overcoming a 1-0 first leg deficit to knock out the ten-in-a-row Belarussian league champions from Europe.


“Best night of all our careers I think,” said the skipper from Galway. “An historic night for Irish football beating a household name 3-0 convincingly.


“A team that played Barcelona, Roma and Leverkusen last season in the Group Stages. It means a lot.


“A great night for Irish football and a great night for the league. No one has got this far in Europe. This is definitely the best night of my career.”


This wasn’t a story of what might have been. Hard luck stories of missed penalties against AC Milan like Athlone in 1975, late goals against Dundalk by Spurs in 1981 or concessions by Shels against Deportivo in 2004.


This was about a team so strong in their convictions that even winning 2-1 on aggregate late in the game they never ran it into the corners and were rewarded with a third goal.


O’Donnell reckons his team will be en-route to their game in Galway when the draw is made on Friday but admitted “we might have a sneaky look on the phone.”


Shamrock Rovers’ qualification for the Europa League came after they were knocked out of the Champions League at last night’s stage 3-0 on aggregate by Copenhagen.


O’Donnell’s penalty netted the Hoops in 2011 a million euro worth of the €1.7m they earned in Europe that year. David McMillan’s double and Robbie Benson’s late icing on the cake, means at a minimum Dundalk will earn in excess of €6m and will prolong their season to nearly Christmas.


Dundalk will be drawn against one from the group of champions from the Czech Republic (Viktoria Plzen), Cyprus (APOEL Nicosia), Austria (Red Bull Salzburg), Poland (Legia Warsaw) and Scotland (Celtic).


“If BATE Borisov had gone through then people would have said ‘they will go through to the Champions League’ so why can’t we do it,” was Gary Rogers’ assessment last night.


The Dundalk ‘keeper raced out of his goal to join in the celebration’s of the third Lilywhite goal at the cornerflag at the far end of the pitch.


“I’ve been waiting all my life to join in on a celebration!” said Rogers. “This is definitely the best night of my career. No doubt about it. To go and achieve what we’ve done tonight against that standard of opposition played against. It is a career defining night for everybody.


“Everyone played to their potential and showed what good players they are. Unfortunately players have to do that at the highest level to earn respect in this country. The league gets beaten with a stick but we have shown tonight was is capable and what talent is here in the league.


“It is great that we are going to fly the flag at least in the Europa League stages but we are going to give it a good rattle trying to get into the Champions League. You wait your whole career for a night like this.”


Dundalk came to Tallaght last season and wrapped up their back-to-back league titles in the stadium just across the road from where manager Stephen Kenny went to school. Where he played school football was on a pitch essentially where the stadium is located now. The venue was of course his place of work for a surprisingly short nine month period.


He took over Shamrock Rovers just two weeks after Rovers’ last Europa League group game in 2011. An early exit from Europe – one he described previously as leaving him “absolutely devastated” - was a major part in his departure from Rovers.


He moved subsequently to a Dundalk side badly in need of inspiration to keep them in the top flight of the league and he provided that and so much more.


His record at Rovers is now just a mere footnote in his managerial history with his palmarés of three league titles and a Europa League or Champions League qualification bettering that of Michael O’Neill for the Hoops in Tallaght.


“It's beyond our wildest dreams from where we took over three-and-a-half years ago to go and qualify for the group stages. Tonight is about the ecstasy of qualifying for European [competition].


“This was unbelievable because BATE are a team of huge calibre. They've taken four points off Roma in the group and they nearly qualified for the last 16. They've had consistently good results, and they've had over 600 European games between their players and they're all internationals, and we're not. We don't have any internationals.”


With the rain dropping heavily from the heavens above Tallaght in injury time, Robbie Benson raced in on goal to put the tie beyond any doubt.


The managerial reaction with that goal and the final whistle wasn’t the calm, measured and thoughtful reaction we see from Kenny in interviews.


We saw him with his shirt drenched with the rain, his arms lifted to the sky and a smile that could light up both Tallaght Stadium and Oriel Park.


“The third one was just a sea of emotion everywhere,” said Kenny about the goal celebration. “It was ecstasy. It was great to be a part of that.”